“Every fossil tells a story,” say the identification cards hanging with each of the fossils on exhibit in “Prairie Ocean: Long Time, No Sea” at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History.
The exhibit opens Friday, the work of Logan County native Chuck Bonner and his friend, Ray Troll, once a Kansan himself.
A mixture of art and fossils, the exhibit of 20-some fossils is a sample of the ancient life that lived in western Kansas some 80 million years ago. The Cretaceous represents a geologic period when marine creatures, most of them gigantic, but some tiny, thrived in a vast inland sea whose shallow waters extended from the Gulf up through Canada.
“This general area was covered for a very long time by an inland sea,” Bonner explained, ultimately leaving the giant creatures fossilized in layers of earth.
“The chalk is very soft, so they’ve been finding fossils since the 1870s out here,” he said.
Bonner discovered and unearthed most of the fossils on display from rocks in Gove and Logan counties. He prepared and identified them, some with the help of his wife, Barbara Shelton.
Each fossil’s story isn’t always what you expect, he pointed out Thursday as he and Troll and Shelton put the finishing touches on the exhibit.
“Like this clam with the fish in it,” he said, strolling to a big, flat circular fossil and pointing to the smaller tiny circles raised up on its surface.
“Because of the silty bottoms of the inland sea, the oysters would attach themselves to the clams,” he said. “Sometimes you find fish inside the clams. The fish were trapped in the clam for some reason.”
Exactly why isn’t known, but there are different theories.
“We’ve talked to clam people, and there is some evidence that fish have a symbiotic relationship with clams, even today. It could have been a cataclysmic event, a volcanic eruption made the clam shut while there were fish in there,” Bonner said. “I have my own theory. I’m wondering if these were dead clams that were sitting open, fish came in and started cleaning them out, the clam lost it’s integrity, and clamped shut and trapped the fish.”
Then there’s the ammonite fossil, discovered in the fence-post layer from the Greenhorn Limestone formation of the Great Plains.
“This one has a quirky story,” Bonner said. “This was a thin layer of Greenhorn that I had as a patio and we had ice laid all over the ground, and it popped loose this round thing, and I got kind of upset because it messed up the patio. Well, I turned it over and here’s an ammonite. Every fossil tells a story, but sometimes a fossil finds you.”
The owner with his wife of Keystone Gallery in Scott City, Bonner also identifies as a field paleontologist.
He grew up hunting fossils with his dad, Marion Bonner, who discovered the short-necked plesiosaur on display for years now at the Sternberg. It was that fossil that led the elder Bonner and his family to form a life-long friendship with one of the museum’s namesakes, George Sternberg.
The fossils he finds, said Bonner, are what he considers found objects that he incorporates into his art work.
One mosasaur on display tells the story of death, “How he curled up and died,” said Bonner.
Another mosasaur fossil has ancient squids in her thoracic area, and it’s assumed that’s probably what killed her, he said.
Bonner and Troll, who went to junior high school and high school in Wichita and graduated from Bethany College, met in 1992 through their common interest in painting and fossils.
They’d talked about doing a joint exhibit for several years.
Now a resident of Alaska, Troll said on Thursday that he’s been drawing dinosaurs since he was 4.
The first fossil he found was the flying reptile pteranodon while he was in Logan County fossil hunting with Bonner.
“I wouldn’t have found a durn thing at all, really, if Chuck hadn’t been along,” Troll said.
Also an artist with a long career of painting and publishing books about ancient creatures, Troll’s art is also on display in the exhibit.
His work switches between humor, whimsy, surrealism and straight-on science, he says, noting one of his newest ones, which combines the ancient sea with a tornado, with Dorothy’s house from the Wizard of Oz, some prehistoric marine animals, him on a tractor, a grain elevator and an old-time windmill.
“I describe myself as an artist,” said Troll. “Somebody once used the term ‘scientific surrealism’ to describe my work. That fits. The science is all there, but surrealism is dreamlike imagery, and there’s a sense of humor, a Dadaist sense of humor, an Absurdist sense of humor, but it’s all grounded in very precise science. I like to have my creatures look about as real as I can get them.”
On Thursday, he was finishing work on Spiker Jr., a gutted 1948 Chevy Suburban, like the one Bonner’s dad used to haul fossils. Troll painted the driver’s-side door with the exhibit’s signature logo, “Prairie Ocean: Long Time, No Sea.”
He and Bonner also added random prehistoric creatures, with sayings like “dig it” and “evolution rocks.”
“Whenever you’re in doubt, or you want something to look a little bit cooler, you put flames on it,” smiled Troll.
“It’s a flaming mosasaur,” he said, pointing to the giant creature encased in 1950’s-type hot rod flames down the side of the Chevy.
Attached to the Chevy’s roof was perched the sculpted head of a giant pteranodon.
Created by fellow artist friend and sculptor Gary Staab, the head was intended to be a hood ornament, but was so big it had to be installed on top of the roof, they said.
Helping paint Spiker was another friend, Hays stained glass artist Stan Detrixhe.
Troll’s 20-foot mural of ancient sea marine life takes up nearly one wall of the exhibit. Originally done as five different color-pencil drawings, he stitched them together in Photoshop, then output the mural on canvas.
“ ‘Kansas Ocean Life’ is what I call it,” Troll said. “There are sharks, mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, lots and lots of fish, some of the fish drawn for the first time and brought back to life.”
It won’t just be the paintings and fossils on display at Friday evening’s opening. Bonner and Troll will collaborate on harmonica and guitar, singing their original songs for museum visitors.
“Prairie ocean, long time no sea,” sang Troll, giving a little preview. “Prairie ocean, tell your secrets to me. What a crazy world it used to be.”
The exhibit program is from 7-9 p.m. Friday at the museum, 3000 Sternberg Drive.